Although I consider myself an optimist, I can quickly recall two comments that negatively impacted me as a cancer survivor. The first came from a medical professional who implied that the threat of losing my hair from chemo was “cool.” The other came from my peers – teenagers at the time – who told me I was “lucky” to have cancer because it got me out of school.
What to say to someone with cancer? Not these two things.
HOW TO ENCOURAGE A CANCER PATIENT
While these comments weren’t meant to hurt me (and many survivors have been told far worse), they stuck with me. Fortunately, they’re not the norm. Out of the outpouring of support and encouragement I’ve received over 18 years of surviving cancer, I’ve been encouraged with thousands of uplifting and positive words.
If you’re looking for ideas on what to say to someone with cancer, here are a few ideas.
If you’re not sure what to say, a simple “I’m sorry” can be powerful. It doesn’t have to be elaborate and it doesn’t imply you’re at fault. “I’m sorry” works because it acknowledges the loss – sort of like a funeral. The way of life prior to the diagnosis is gone, and you can express your sorry to see the person go through it.
I’m sorry helps validate the patient’s feelings. Even if everyone else is saying “I’m sorry,” that’s OK. Trust me – it’s way better than people saying nothing (or the wrong thing) to you.
Saying “I’m here” can let the survivor know you’re available – it helps if you’re looking for what to say to someone with cancer. It’s better than “let me know if you need anything” because that heaps responsibility on someone already burdened and overwhelmed.
By saying “I’m here and we’re going to get through this,” the patient knows they’re not alone. They may not take you up on any offers of support right away, but it’s comforting to know people are emotionally and physically available. It’s even better if there’s action to the intention and you:
- bring dinner or set up a meal train
- have coffee
- send a card
- make a visit to the hospital
- send check-in texts
- mow the lawn
YOU LOOK GREAT!
Even when I hadn’t showered and looked pale as a ghost, I had nurses who said “You look great!” each time I showed up for chemo. Today as a survivor, it’s one of my favorite things to hear at a doctor’s appointment. It means a lot to be told I look great – and especially when I feel crappy.
Looking to encourage the cancer patient in your life? Find something – a t-shirt, hairstyle, eye color – anything to compliment. It can really give a boost on their day.
YOU ARE REALLY INSPIRING.
We might brush it off as a way of staying humble, but most of us survivors take it to heart when we’re called inspiring. What to say to someone with cancer? Try brave, courageous and amazing. Although we’re fighting a disease we didn’t ask for, to be validated that we’re giving it our best is encouraging and helps keep us going.
There’s mixed feelings about telling someone they’re “strong.” Personally, I like it – but you’ll need to handle that one carefully. Whatever you do, don’t invalidate the weakness the survivor feels, but do bring out the best in them.
YOUR STORY INSPIRES ME TO _____.
Not only is it encouraging to be told we’re inspiring, but if we encouraged you to do something – that takes the cake. Were you inspired to:
- share your own story because a survivor shared theirs?
- get a colonoscopy or focus on your own health?
- adopt a child?
- join an advocacy group?
- bake cookies?
If you can identify a positive impact the survivor’s cancer made on your life, let them know. It helps them find purpose in their fight and keeps them going.
WHY DID 6 EAT 7?
Because 7 8 9! Okay, so the famous joke may be a stretch, but humor and jokes have helped me a lot through tough days. Comedies, puns, games and other silly stuff helps take our minds off of a serious situation and brings welcomed levity.
Each person is different, including their style of humor and what they can take, but don’t be afraid to introduce laughter to a cancer experience. It’s usually a welcomed break.
If I could go back and tell all of my friends one thing – it would be this:
Please keep inviting me.
I may not always be able to show up.
I may decline a lot.
But the invitation itself is life giving.
When you’re facing loss – whether it be cancer, grief or any other pain – it gets very lonely and isolating. An invitation to participate shows someone they’re wanted and welcome. Patients need to feel there’s a reason for their life to go on when they’re fighting something that’s trying to take it.
CAN YOU SHARE YOUR OPINION?
I think most humans enjoy being asked for their opinions – and when you’re a patient, you really like sharing your perspective. The health care landscape alone sparks a lot of thoughts, but facing a traumatic situation often gives you a unique outlook.
When you’re asked for your opinion, your voice is validated. What to say to someone with cancer? Ask for their opinion – I’m sure they have one! Need ideas? Here’s a start:
- the hospital experience
- what matters in life
- what cancer patients need most
- how a church can support patients
Trust me – patients have a lot of opinions. It’s worth asking for them once in awhile.
THERE’S PURPOSE IN THIS.
I told this to myself the day I was diagnosed with cancer, and I’ve repeated it nearly daily for 18 years now.
There’s purpose for this – God will use this.
Today, I do feel like cancer is leading to things that involve my destiny. And it gives me a lot of peace – purpose came from my pain. If you’re not sure what to say to a patient, remind them that the experience will can help others. Don’t give mindless cliches – especially religious ones. Don’t spout out Bible verses and not validate someone’s struggling emotions.
But, remind patients that all bad things can be used for good after you’ve validated that it’s tough. This is a great start if you’re unsure about what to say to someone with cancer
Danielle blogs about cancer survivorship, communications and faith. Subscribe to her weekly email, the Monday Morning Survival Guide, so you don’t miss out on anything!